TOULOUSE: France’s Lourdes Roman Catholic shrine, which usually attracts millions of pilgrims every year, organised the first-ever e-pilgrimage on Thursday designed to gather people from all over the world, but virtually.

Lourdes is usually thronged in summer with pilgrims who travel, sometimes across the world, to light a candle in the sanctuary where Catholics believe the Virgin Mary appeared.

But with flights grounded, many international borders still closed and social distancing rules in place due to the coronavirus pandemic, Lourdes had to find another way.

The sanctuary in southwest France broadcast mass and prayers all day in five different languages on television and social media for the e-pilgrimage, dubbed “Lourdes United”.

A live two-hour celebration took place during the afternoon from the Grotto, to mark what the faithful believe is the eighteenth and last apparition of Mary to young girl Bernadette Soubirous in 1858.

The Grotto, a cave, is where Soubirous is said to have seen the mother of Jesus.

The site also boasts a spring with reputed healing powers, from which pilgrims drink.

Even virtually, “there is a real communion between pilgrims,” said Olivier Ribadeau-Dumas, rector of the Sanctuary of Lourdes.

The anniversary is the “opportunity for all those who are far to get together, even if it will never replace coming on a pilgrimage,” he added.

A team of chaplains will also be in charge of responding in different languages on social media to priests who answer prayer intentions, “but also to questions relating to the possibilities of pilgrimages to Lourdes or questions regarding faith,” said Mathias Terrier, head of communications for Lourdes.